Young migrant worker Root is convinced that he lives in a world without thieves.
Having saved up about 60,000 yuan (US$7,500) after five years' hard work for Tibetan Buddhist monasteries on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, he decides to go back by train to his home village, build a house and get married, carrying with him all the cash in a schoolbag.
It sounds like an absurd story, but with such an unconvincing premise, director Feng Xiaogang's new festive movie A World Without Thieves (Tianxia Wuzei) has convinced many movie-goers, some even having been reportedly moved to tears, and drawn plenty of critic accolades.
The film is being shown across China and runs until Christmas Eve. For the premiere on December 9, the movie's nationwide box office income was reportedly 5.3 million yuan (US$639,000), and box office revenues are expected to fetch as much as 100 million yuan (US$12 million) by the end of this month, according to statistics from local distributors.
At a cost of 40 million yuan (US$ 4.8 million), the color feature film is a co-production from the Beijing-based Huayi Brothers Taihe Film Co and Hong Kong-based Media Asia Films.
A World Without Thieves is Feng's sixth commercial, festive film since his first hit Part A, Part B (Jiafang Yifang) in 1999.
It stars Hong Kong heart throb Andy Lau, popular Taiwan actress Rene Liu, veteran mainland actor Ge You, and emerging stars Wang Baoqiang, Li Bingbing and Zhang Hanyu.
A change of style?
A World Without Thieves is believed by many viewers and critics alike to be one with a new style for Feng, who is an undisputed top-gross commercial film director in the Chinese mainland.
It moves away from Feng's usual black humor, grotesque and sometimes bizarre depictions of social reality.
The new work carries a more sentimental and idealistic storyline.
"This is a fresh try. Film producers and audiences may all get tired if I keep making films in the same old way," said Feng.
Feng's new effort is more complicated in terms of structure, tone and subject matter.
"If the audiences give the nod to my new style, then I will take the opportunities to churn out other films of different styles," he said.
Shooting for the film started last April at Labrang Monastery in Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, northwest China's Gansu Province. The famous monastery and the Buddhist images provide what Feng describes as "a spiritual backdrop to the storyline."
"I was personally intrigued and moved by the script," says Feng, 46.
"But this time -- a big challenge for me -- the movie is not a comedy."
Comedy is widely considered to be the usual format for a typical "festive film," which caters to movie-goers during Christmas, the New year, and sometimes the Spring Festival seasons.
The tragi-comic film A World Without Thieves touches upon human nature and deals with love between two thieves, Feng said.
It is the inner conflict that the main protagonists face that attracted him to the project, Feng said.
"What I think is meaningful is the contradiction in the story. The young migrant worker travels down a railway which is chock-full of all kinds of thieves. He does not believe in thieves. But the ironic thing is that his belief is safeguarded by two thieves. It is an interesting contradiction. I think the audiences will like that."
He decided to extend the short story into a full-length film script. The film boasts some of the most breathtaking scenery of Northwest China, particularly the wilds of southern Gansu Province.
It is no doubt an ambitious project, relying on numerous and impressive scenes of the thieves' tricks of the trade, but shot in the fashion of dazzling kung fu stunts.
But Feng says it was easier to shoot than his previous films.
"Cell Phone (Shouji) had too much to do with social reality, while A World without Thieves has little to do with real life but looks more like a parable," he claimed.
Over the years, Feng is often criticized for indulging in money-making by shooting commercial films instead of tackling any social issues in earnest.
Even so, he is unwilling to attach any solemn meaning to his new film.
"If you ask me: Do you believe in a world without thieves? My answer is definitely no, which is exactly why I wanted to make it. Yes, the belief of a world without thieves is just what a naive boy has in his dream. But I try to make the dream come true either for Root or for any of us. For me, a movie is just a dream. And my audiences pay for the dream. So do not expect my film to be a cure. It is but a pain killer.
"My films have something in common: I am always trying to depict life like a game. This approach is still recognizable in the new film."
He is satisfied with his new film. "In the years to come, I won't give up shooting comic films. But I hope that I can do something else and do it still quite well."
A thief duo's self-redemption
Adapted from veteran novelist Zhao Benfu's fiction of the same title, the film evolves around a Chinese-style Bonnie and Clyde -- Wang Bo, played by Andy Lau, and Wang Li, played by Rene Liu.
He is a handsome, young but seasoned conman and master pickpocket from Hong Kong, she, a sexy femme fatale from Taiwan.
Partners in crime and passion, the couple swindle their way across the Chinese mainland, until one fine day they run into young migrant worker Root, played by Wang Baoqiang, in a train station, an encounter that will alter the duo's fate forever.
There seems to be an underlying sense of the old versus the new in the film's plot. The thieves, particularly Wang Bo, are brash, cocky, and ready to grab whatever they want from the world. Meanwhile, the orphaned migrant worker reflects a wiser age, putting his faith in old-fashioned ideas such as honesty and moral integrity.
Wang Li is pregnant but Wang Bo is unaware of it. She wants to stop stealing and help Root go home safely with his money. Wang Li's change of attitude causes increasing tension between her and her partner.
As the story develops, however, the two of them gradually gain a better view of themselves and build up confidence for their love, and hope for future.
Speaking of the changes of attitude in Wang Bo and Wang Li, Feng said: "I think we have to realize the power of religious faith. I believe when a thief comes to see his or her sinful deeds and possible retributions, he or she will feel fear and awe in front of Buddha."
Like many people we know in real life, Wang Li looks resolved but is fragile. She is trying to find something that can give her courage to live on, Feng said.
This faith makes it natural for her to think twice about her way of life. For her, Root's innocence is but a trigger at the right moment, Feng said. "By putting her in such a context, I am sure my portrayal is convincing."
It would have been unthinkable for Lau to appear in Feng's previous comic films.
But when the two are both seeking a change of artistic style, it seemed natural that they should co-operate in this film, which could be seen as a symbolic win-win situation for the film industries of the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong.
Andy Lau says he and director Feng worked well together, and he learned many things from him.
"This film is very different from Feng's previous works, and this is a very brave approach. I support his new style and respect his understanding of movies. I have also learned lots from his persistent striving to achieve his vision," he said.
Lau is a star in the world of Canto-pop, the Cantonese language hybrid of Chinese ballads and Western pop, and also an award-winning actor. He has starred in some of Hong Kong's most critically acclaimed films including cop thriller series Infernal Affairs.
In A World Without Thieves, Lau wears shoulder-length tresses with a fringe. He admitted that was one of his toughest acting jobs.
"I've never seen myself so ugly in my life... We've tried many different ways to make me look bad, we've tried big dark glasses and curly hair and we finally decided to use the wig," Lau said. "(Feng) thought that was the worst looking we could get. At the beginning I quite disliked it but I had to accept it."
Many female moviegoers are reported to have burst into tears in one scene of the film, which we will not reveal here in case we spoil the plot for film-goers.
On the surface, Wang Bo is portrayed as a person who is totally disappointed with life and the world. In contrast, Wang Li still holds some faith in a wonderful but cruel world. Wang Bo says he is "a lonely ghost and will be a thief even in his next life if there were one."
He doubts he can change. Some viewers say that despite their superb performances, the roles of Andy Lau and Rene Liu do not match their expectation of thieves.
Feng replied: "It is true that neither of them look like thieves. But, could it be possible that we put aside our stereotypical view of thieves and accept their portrayals of unlikely thieves?"
Young actress Li Bingbing, better known by overseas audiences for her role in Michelle Yeoh's Silk Hawk last year, has made a very impressive appearance in A World Without Thieves.
"I have tried my best to portray the sexy, young and dangerous female thief Xiao Ye though it is just a minor role. This acting experience gives me confidence for future roles," she said.
Young actor Zhang Hanyu also gives a laudable performance as the sharp-eyed undercover cop who draws pictures of the wanted thieves and puts all the thieves on the train in jail except Wang Li.
Zhang, a trained film dubber, worked for imported Hollywood blockbusters such as The Lord of the Rings and Troy.
He played roles in some popular TV drama series like The Happy Life of Garrulous Zhang Damin (Pinzui Zhang Damin de Xingfu Shenghuo).
He also acted in Feng's previous films such as Big Shot's Funeral (Da Wan'er) as a mental patient.
Root, played by Wang Baoqiang, wins the heart of many audiences, too.
Born in a remote village in Hebei Province, he began learning kung fu at the age of 8, at the Shaolin Temple in Central China's Henan Province. He stayed there for six years before coming to Beijing and working as an extra in action stunt scenes.
He dreams of becoming a kung fu movie star like Jackie Chan and Jet Li.
"I never dreamed of acting in Feng's new film alongside with big names such as Andy Lau and Rene Liu. I phoned my elder brother but he said I was lying."
"It sounds just as absurd as the belief of a world without thieves, but it really happens," Wang said.
Lau has long been his idol because of his songs and films. Liu is also popular in his village and in his family because of her appearance in the TV drama Pink Beauties (Fenhong Nulang), Wang said.
"I know that the role I played appears to be very silly, very naive. But I believe that kind of person does exist, who lives close to monasteries and has a firm religious faith. As the son of a farmer from rural China, I do not see much difference between Root and myself," said Wang Baoqiang.
But Wang does not want to play this type of role all the time.
"Instead of playing always the pitiful good-for-nothings, I hope to act out heroic roles in the future like Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow," he said.
Sticking to his usual acting style, Ge You, in the role of Uncle Li, head of the gang of thieves, gives a passable, predictable performance. That makes it possible to preserve the humorous touch Chinese audiences are familiar with when watching Feng's previous festive films. But this also prevents Feng from going too far to change the style of his new film, critics say.
But the film does give viewers the feeling of a real blockbuster in terms of its visual quality and camera work. The long shots of the snow-covered mountains and plateau gives the viewers a breath-taking view of the natural beauty.
The jump cuts of Wang Li's praying scene at the Tibetan monastery are rare in Feng's previous films.
But Feng could have done better in the visual beauty of the film if he had given a richer and better textured depiction of the close space on the fast moving train.
Plenty of the scenes, mainly the action scenes and backgrounds of the moving train, are apparently done with digitally morphed images.
The excessive use of digital images may to a great extent reveal Feng's lack of confidence in implementing the task when facing an audience more and more acquainted with exquisitely choreographed and accurately shot action stunts in Hollywood movies, critics say.
And the treatment of the backgrounds of the moving train is somewhat clumsy, but still acceptable considering that China's film digital art is still in its infant stage.
Most of Feng's previous films are set in the city. This one is on a train running across Northwest China.
The film boasts a mixed, or confusing, repertoire of jazz, pop and re-arranged folk music, that to a certain degree fails to enhance the strength of the story.
For his winning formula for commercial merit, Feng cast a mixed team of stars from different regions to cater to as wide an audience as possible, which is understandable and acceptable. But his excessive use of "embedded commercials" really are annoying, some moviegoers say.
There are also some concerns about the "thieves" negative effects -- the sex and love scenes, violence, blood scenes, scenes of swindling, theft and robbery in the film. Some critics say it is an adult film and are calling for the advent of a movie-rating system to protect unprepared, younger audiences.
(China Daily December 17, 2004)